Ask around and you will find much debate about what makes a city "smart." For my generation, a "smart city" was comically portrayed by a cartoon, The Jetsons, with flying cars and robotic dogs and machines that instantly completed many of the mundane tasks we endure every day.
Today, however, a smart city means something much different. Sure, we already have driverless cars on our street, robots in our factories and artificial intelligence in our gadgets, but the future of smart cities is actually simpler than the sum of all these technologies.
Smart cities of tomorrow will be built on and rely on one simple and profound factor: data.
I currently serve on a community advisory group tasked with advising local jurisdictions on how to "smarten" our city. Much of the research and advice we receive often revolves around infrastructure, hardware and software, all of which are important and worth considering. The challenge, however, is that these factors will become obsolete, requiring us to again take up the task of smartening our city in a few years.
Instead, jurisdictions and economic development corporations should be looking at data, and in particular the capacity to collect, manage, analyze and apply data to make smarter decisions for the community stakeholders.
Why data? Because data is not going anywhere, and in fact the prevalence of data in our lives will only become greater and more important. Consider for instance that, according to many experts, 90 percent of all data ever created was created in the past two years, and every two years, we will generate more than 10 times more data than the past two years. It is an incredible consideration.
The challenge of course is determining just how to collect, clean (normalize) and analyze the trove of data available to us. And for cities in particular, how do we use this data to make better resource decisions that created a higher quality of life for the citizenry.
Recently, at TechBeach in Bermuda, a conference that assembles the world's most influential people and companies in technology, a panel of leading experts discussed just how cities can stay out in front of the data wave and effectively use it to better the lives of it citizens. The panelists included:
- Steven Suthiana - President and Chief Digital Officer, Grit Daily
- Darren Wolfberg - Co-Founder and CEO, Blockchain Triangle
- John Paul Doughty - Co-Founder, Current Vehicles
- Peter Adriaens - Director, Center for InfraTech Finance, University of Michigan
- Evan Caron - Co-Founder and Managing Director, Swytch.io
Among the top considerations, panelists agreed that cities need to focus on three areas, and incredibly, none of them involved technology.
Identify Needs and Set Goals
Too often, cities launch into developing technology or infrastructure for the sake of doing it. This typically takes them down long and expensive paths that lead to meaningless results, or it creates so much work that more time is spent managing the data and technology than actually applying it.
Instead, just as companies do, city leaders need to set goals based on the specific needs of its citizens. Not every city has the same needs, so not every city should be pursuing the same technology goals.
Identify and Focus on Strengths
Additionally, not every city is equipped to take on huge technology projects. Moreover, being a smart city does not mean being the most technologically advanced city. In fact, simple technology advances can often have significant and disproportionate impacts.
To start, city leaders should focus on and leverage the strengths they have and less on the weaknesses they feel they need to overcome. By focusing on strengths, and utilizing the resources available, cities can have an immediate impact and, more importantly, avoid wasting valuable resources trying to correct weaknesses that will have less of an impact.
From my experience, most city leaders are good politicians, but not always good technologists. Instead of trying to solve all of the problems alone, cities should look at creating an environment and infrastructure that allows and encourages innovation and, ultimately, creates a place where the top technology companies come to work and collaborate.
A simple way to accomplish this is to create regulations, training and support, and tax incentives that attract top innovators. Moreover, working with infrastructure providers, such as internet and utilities, and creating collaborative spaces where legislators and local business leaders can meet, discuss and evolve together will generate the environment needed to build community and encourage innovation.
On a side note, the TechBeach conference did showcase how well Bermuda has done in creating its own unique "smart city" environment that is attracting top technology companies, in particular in the area of fintech (finance technologies) and blockchain. The country had a head start with a mature finance infrastructure and a young, tech-savvy country leader, but it demonstrates just how valuable it can be to focus on strengths and strategic areas of need, rather than pursuing a broad and vague strategy.
In order for a city to stay relevant and be at the leading edge of innovation, creating more value and improving the quality of life for it citizenry, it need not look to flying cars and robot dogs -- although those are amazing -- but instead create an environment that encourages innovators to come -- and stay -- and allows them to build the smart city for you.